End of the World? Or Business as Usual?

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There has been a huge amount of blog traffic, not least in the Christian blogosphere, on the recent riots in the UK.  Without wishing to minimize in any way the awful devastation to lives and to property these riots represent, I do think it is important to make one point which seems to have been missed: there have been riots in Britain (as in virtually every other country under the sun) for centuries.  What we see today is nothing new; and the search for novel culprits (typically, in Christian Right discourse, the Welfare State) needs to take this into account.  

The Riot Act, which was the law pertaining to riotous assembly in Britain until 1973, was a direct result of the Sacheverell riots of 1710 (and they were far from the first riots in English history).  Later in the eighteenth century, the Gordon riots of 1780 involved widespread looting and vandalism.  These provided the inspiration for one of Charles Dickens' novels, Barnaby Rudge.  Both sets of riots were, incidentally, inspired by religious fervour and grievances and (in the former case) a significant tax increase.  No welfare state to blame back then.

The Riot Act was in regular use throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  It was also invoked on occasion in the twentieth, most notoriously in Birkenhead in 1919, when troops were needed to bring rioting and looting under control, and also in Glasgow that same year, when nearly 100 000 people were involved in rioting.

The Act was repealed in 1973 but this did not mean an end to the time-honoured practice of widespread rioting every generation.   Those of my vintage well remember the summer of 1981 when riots spread once again across the country and fear gripped the nation.

As I said at the start, this is not to minimize the awful nature of recent events; it is simply to make the point that these events are part of a long history of rioting.  They probably involved less people (and that out of a larger population) than some of the earlier incidents and (of course) they involved only a minuscule number of the population in a tiny geographical proportion of the country.  My mother did not riot.

Yes, these events are shocking, especially when mediated through the dramatic images on television -- more shocking still to those whose image of England in particular is shaped by P G Wodehouse and Downton Abbey.   But it depends where you look as to where you see Armageddon about to happen and which system you think is in crisis: Western Europe still has a very low murder rate compared to the USA; London and Manchester are still a whole lot safer than Detroit or St Louis or New Orleans.

The UK riots are not some exceptional occurrence; they are just a typical outworking of fallen human nature in a specific context, of a kind that has plenty of precedent and will no doubt happen again.   Not the end of civilization so much as business as usual for fallen humanity, I am afraid.

Posted August 15, 2011 @ 6:59 PM by Carl Trueman
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